May 15, 2011 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
"Son, your ego is writing checks your body can't cash." - Stinger to Maverick in "Top Gun."
Cmdr. Stinger was wrong. At the end of the 1986 box-office hit, Maverick takes on a half-dozen MIG fighters. Four go down in flames. Two high-tail it for home. But it wasn't the hot shot Navy pilot's ego that carried the day. It was his ride: the then-state-of-the-art F-14 Tomcat.
Though the film was pure Hollywood, the hardware was real. And it impressed. After the film's release, enlistees requesting naval aviator training skyrocketed 500 percent.
They weren't gunning for a movie deal. They wanted to be on the deck of a real carrier -- with the best pilots, the best training, and the best equipment on Earth.
Dave Baranek, a real Top Gun, flew enemy MIGs in the movie. His memoir, "Top Gun Days," recalls that the F-14's "trump card" was the AIM-54 Phoenix missile.
"We could launch at a target 100 miles away," he wrote. "Only F-14s carried the Phoenix missile, and no other missile in the world approached its performance." The plane, the man, and the missile were an unbeatable team. That was then. Top Gun marks its 25th anniversary. Much has changed.
The F-14 fleet, first fielded in 1974, has been retired. Maverick's carrier, USS Enterprise, is now 50 years old. The Navy is seriously thinking about decommissioning it.
Of course, the Navy and the other services have lots of equipment almost as old, just as old, or even older. Much of it has seen a lot of active service throughout the long war, and that kind of wear and tear makes America's aging arsenal seem even older.
That's why all the talk in Washington about saving money by cutting defense spending is such a bad idea. To protect our nation, the best way to save money is to invest in the future -- not just repairing our worn and depleted arsenal, but modernizing our arsenal so we can retain our edge in future combat. Stop investing in the military today, and there will be no more Top Guns tomorrow.
For starters, the armed forces need the F-35, the next-generation aircraft that will fill the fighter needs not just of the Navy but also the Marine Corps, the Air Force and several allied nations. The F-35 is as decisive an edge today as the F-14 and the Phoenix-missile team were in their day.
It boasts a combination of advantages no other plane can match, including radar-evading stealth capabilities, versions that can fly off carrier decks and dirt airstrips, and more capabilities than a Swiss Army knife.
This plane can do almost anything asked of a flying war-machine from sensing far-off targets to electronic warfare to managing airspace, to directing the fire of fighters and sharing information with ground troops.
Washington could save a boatload of money by buying the F-35 in bulk and by aggressively marketing the fighter to friends and allies. And it would be really smart to reopen the F-22 fighter production line as well, since these fighters were designed to complement each other. Indeed, many of our allies would find the F-22 attractive, too.
Stocking up on F-35s and F-22s would give the United States the world's most modern, cost-effective air forces. It's a smart buy that would let us own the skies for a very long time and enable all our fighter pilots to quote Maverick: "That's right! I am dangerous."
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Examiner